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December 01st 2011 print

Bill Muehlenberg

On reforming Islam

Who really represents Islam? Are the Islamists the real face of Islam, or are the reformers? Do the moderates in fact faithfully reflect genuine Islam, or do the jihadists?

As we all know Christianity has had its periods of reformation, including The Reformation at the end of the Middle Ages. When a Christian speaks of reform or renewal, he always means going back to Christ and the Gospels, and going back to the Apostles and the Book of Acts.

When Christianity goes off track, it needs to get back to Christ and his teachings. The question is, what about Islam? Does it make sense to talk about reforming Islam? And what would that entail? Islam as such has never had a major reform movement as Christianity has.

Many so-called moderate Muslims speak of reform and the like. They argue that the jihadists and Islamists do not represent real Islam. Instead, they argue, they are extremists who distort the true teachings of Islam. The problem is, the “moderates” and the radicals both claim to speak for Islam.

So the real question is, who really represents Islam? Are the Islamists the real face of Islam, or are the reformers? Do the moderates in fact faithfully reflect genuine Islam, or do the jihadists? These are important questions to ask, and seeking to get the answers right is very crucial indeed.

To answer these sorts of questions, we must understand the fundamental place the life, teaching and example of Muhammad plays in Islam. This, known as the sunna, is the basis for Islamic faith. What Muhammad did and said is the gold standard for all Muslims.

What was good for Muhammad is to be good for all Muslims. We learn about what he did and said in not just the Koran but in two other important sources: the hadith and the sira. The first are collections of his teachings and activities, and the second are the authorised biographies of Muhammad.

So the three sources give us what we need to know about his life and teachings. And what we find there is not always pretty. The commands to violence, discrimination against non-Muslims, the second class condition of women, the lack of freedom of conscience, honor killings, the death penalty for apostasy, and so on are just some of the fundamental and inherent problems of this religion.

But of course sharia law enjoins us not to say anything critical of the prophet, or to cast aspersions on his name and character. Indeed, to do so is a capital offense. So right there we have a major problem, if we are talking about reforming Islam. Islam is considered to be a perfect religion, and to speak ill of it is just not on.

Thus you can’t even really discuss the very things that need discussing. And to reform Islam really mean to reform Muhammad! Since his life and example is what all Muslims are to follow, what happens with his violent and often immoral life? How can that be reformed?

Take the issue of religion and violence for example. Jesus of course spoke about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. He never used force, coercion or violence to bring people to faith, and he decried the use of such force.

Thus when Christians have sought to force people to become believers, they are at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus and the entire New Testament. But things are quite different in Islam. Not only does the Koran and hadith repeatedly condone religious violence, but the life of Muhammad is a paradigm for all his followers.

The truth is, Muhammad was a man of war, certainly in his later years. He participated in 27 military campaigns, and authorised another 46 to 59 campaigns (depending on which version of events we run with). Islam was spread by the edge of the sword, and Muhammad led the way in this.

He engaged in violence, murder, assassinations, beheadings, raids, trafficking in slaves, and other forms of religious coercion. So when jihadists do exactly the same, they have the example of Muhammad to follow, along with clear teachings of the Koran and the hadith.

The jihadists can therefore very correctly argue that they are true Muslims, and that they are going back to the heart of their faith: the life and example of Muhammad. So that puts would be moderates and reformers in a real bind. Indeed, it can rightly be argued that such reformers are not in fact real Muslims, since they are seeking to repudiate their own leader and his example.

Sure, Muslim scholars, jurists and leaders can and do debate questions of interpretation and the like: what exactly does jihad mean for example. But there is a clear consensus amongst Muslim scholarship that not only was Muhammad a man of war, but there is clear exhortation for Muslims to do the same in all classic Islamic sources.

The only way Muslim moderates can get around such clear teachings and history is to take liberties with the texts, and to deny their clear teachings. Instead of taking things at face value, they have to water things down or explain things away.

A classic example of this comes from a major Islamic leader here in Australia who I just recently publicly debated. Dr Ameer Ali is a self-declared moderate who also seeks to defend Islam. But the only way he can push for moderation and reform is by renouncing much of his own faith or by pretending it does not mean what it clearly teaches.

On the issue of women in Islam for example he has said this: “Islam came to liberate the women from this state of subjugation and oppression. An intentional and not literalist reading of the various verses in the Quran relating to marriage, inheritance, orphans, slaves, modesty etc. should make it clear to any intelligent person that the religion came as a liberator and not a subjugator of women.”

There you go: the only way we can defend the horrible track record of Islamic dehumanising of women is to make sure we do not take a “literalist” reading. But to not take these sources seriously and literally is to undermine the very faith. In other words, the only way he can put a positive spin on all this is to effectively contradict his own religion, its own holy writings, and the example of Muhammad.

While Muhammad was a good husband to the widow Khadijah, Dr Ali does not fully inform his audience about his 12 or so other wives, including the child bride Aisha (married at age 6, consummated at age 9). He does not speak of his female slaves, the Koranic justification of wife beating, female genital mutilation, the belief that women are inferior, and so on. I detail all this here…

Thus a straight-forward and literal reading of the Islamic source documents makes it perfectly clear how poorly women are viewed and treated in Islam. Only by denying what these texts so clearly state can you seek to argue that Islam is good for women.

So in this case of moderation and reform, it can only be done by doing the very thing good Muslims are not supposed to do: by denying or undermining the example and teachings of Muhammad. And in most Muslim-majority countries the only response to this would be death.

So let me wrap things up here by asking several questions. Are there such things as moderate Muslims? Yes absolutely, and perhaps the majority of Muslims would roughly fall into this camp. But can we argue that Islam itself is moderate? I believe the answer here is no.

Thus the next question also has to be answered in the negative: Can Islam be drastically reformed and made peace-loving? How can it be so transformed, when to do so would mean to reform the very founder of the religion, Muhammad?

To remove all the violent, anti-women, anti-Semitic, anti-freedom, anti-democracy and anti-pluralistic elements of Islam would be to destroy Islam itself. It would no longer exist. So genuine reform of Islam to make it compatible with Western freedoms, pluralism and democracy seems to be simply impossible.

Indeed, Islam is considered to be a “perfect” religion. How can you reform that which is perfect? To argue for reform means you consider it to be less than perfect, something the Koran clearly warns against. So it is really difficult for a true Muslim to even consider reform. Reforming Islam is a contradiction in terms according to devout Muslims.

We must nonetheless applaud and support those Muslim reformers. But I suspect their attempts at modernising and democratising Islam are doomed to fail. It may be better to persuade them that Islam itself is the problem, and that if they truly value such things as religious freedom, the rule of law, genuine democracy and treating all people equally, they really should consider leaving Islam altogether.

That is, individual Muslims can be reformed, but to seek to reform Islam would be to attempt to make it into something altogether different – it would no longer be Islam. In fact, one can argue that there is a real reformation of Islam going on today – that of the Islamists who think (I believe correctly) that they are the true followers of Muhammad.

I close where I began: to reform Christianity one must go back to its roots and go back to Jesus. To reform Islam (away from its inherent violence, misogyny, expansionism, intolerance, discrimination, oppression and tyranny) one must move away from its roots, not back to them. But to do so really means leaving Islam.